Goebbels, Hitler’s nefarious right-hand man, had contemplated becoming a priest in his younger years. His deeply religious sentiments turned out to be useful in the rise of the Third Reich, and also prophetic in the early years of it’s formation when he wrote the following:
“National Socialism is a religion. All we lack is a religious genius capable of uprooting outmoded religious practices and putting new ones in their place. We lack traditions and ritual. One day soon National Socialism will be the religion of all Germans. My Party is my church, and I believe I serve the Lord best if I do his will, and liberate my oppressed people from the fetters of slavery. That is my gospel.”
The “religious genius” Goebbels predicted eventually appeared.
I was reminded of Goebbels’s ominous prediction recently while thinking about the how the dance between religion and nihilism is still rife in our time. Goebbels waged a life long battle with suicidal depression, was on the cusp of choosing nihilism over faith. In his college years, he wrote a will and made it clear that he was going to end his own life. But he eventually chose faith in the religion of national socialism and became one of it’s high ranking arch bishops. His “Party” (and it’s ideology) was his church. And he wanted to liberate his “oppressed people” from bondage.
This sounds eerily familiar – on both of the radical ends of our current political spectrum: The real alt-right (not all of the people who oppose the alt-left as they like to believe), who attend the church of White Supremacy. And the alt-left–aka Social Justice Warriors who attend the church of the twisted mix of Postmodernism-Marxist-nihilism and deny everything about human history accept for the oppression of the oppressed. It’s tempting to go off on both of these immature ideologies, to have a field-day making fun of them. But today I’m enjoying a brief moment of elevated maturity (though I’m sure it won’t last) so I’m motivated to to see if I can come up with a solution.
The first thing that came to mind is that Ralph Waldo Emerson–despite the color of his skin, his “white male” heritage, and all his faults as human being from a different time and place in history–might have come up with at least one solution to this madness. He wrote in his collection of essays on Nature about bridging the gap between religion and science, love and perception:
The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because [men and women] are is disunited with [themselves]. [They] cannot be [naturalists], until [they] satisfy all the demands of the spirit. Love is as much its demand, as perception. Indeed, neither can be perfect without the other. In the uttermost meaning of the words, thought is devout, and devotion is thought. Deep calls unto deep. But in actual life, the marriage is not celebrated. There are innocent [men and women] who worship God after the tradition of their [mothers and fathers], but their sense of duty has not yet extended to the use of all their faculties. And there are patient naturalists, but they freeze their subject under the wintry light of the understanding. Is not prayer also a study of truth, — a sally of the soul into the unfound infinite? No [one] ever prayed heartily, without learning something. But when a faithful thinker, resolute to detach every object from personal relations, and see it in the light of thought, shall, at the same time, kindle science with the fire of the holiest affections, then will God go forth anew into the creation.
Being a “faithful thinker” doesn’t require a massive amount of knowledge, which is something that most of our educational institutions seek to instill in their students. In fact, it’s quite possible to become educated beyond our intelligence, to acquire so much knowledge that we don’t feel obligated to think anymore, only regurgitate. But a “faithful thinker” only needs a little bit of humility to realize that she is blessed with the ability to think, and that no one can accurately explain to her what thinking actually is. But she sees that she has the ability, regardless.
Blind Faith in religion usually requires trusting in some sort of omniscient power: a punishing God, as in many of the Judaeo Christian traditions; a demagogue, as in what Goebbels found in Hitler, or an unknowable creator of all that is that is ready and waiting for us to open our hearts so that the grace of un-improvable love can be beamed into us, as with many of the new-age sects. But many people, including myself, struggle with having faith in some sort of narrative about God. Some renounce faith and the idea of God entirely, in favor of logic and reason, while blindly having faith in the very thinking they are using to be logical and reasonable. We don’t need an accurate definition of thinking to have conscious faith in our capacity to think (I’m not talking about making any real sense at this point, just the raw ability to wonder without latching on to any certainty). And just like we can take control of our breathing, we can take the helm of our own thinking. If I can do it, on rare occasions, anyone can!
A note of caution: Goethe, the famous poet and phenomenological thinker who wrote Faust, warned that “thinking about thinking would drive one mad.” So be careful, but know also the Einstein was thought to be crazy.
Where your individual capacity to think for yourself will lead you is anyone guess. But safe to say, I think (pun intended) that you won’t go down the road that Goebbels went down. He needed to have faith in something outside of himself. But thinking is an integral part of us, of you, and dare I say it’s nothing short of a miracle that we can do it. Children, once they start talking, are unconsciously in love with the ability. Perhaps that’s what Christ was alluding to when he said, “in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven you must be liken unto a child.” The hard part, though, is that, as we mature into adulthood, we bare the cross of responsibility for our own thinking. And thinking is risky, because it will get you in trouble with those who have faith in a religion or ideology where their thinking is mostly done for them. Real thinking, what I’ve heard called living thinking, rarely equates to being right, or proving something wrong. That’s a big part of it, but it’s a small part too. The bigger part–and by far the hardest because it require us to take full responsibility for our consciousness– is to turn our thoughts into creations such as art, music, compassion in action, and wisdom, so that we can share some of our uniqueness with loved ones, our community, our country, and maybe even the world writ large.
When I started to take notice my ability to think my life began to change, and it wasn’t pretty. “Old habits die hard” as the saying goes. Over the four or so decades that I spent mostly not thinking, I had built up habits of mind to keep me safe. I had to protect what little self esteem I had–which wasn’t much–with all the available resources at my disposal: my cunning, passive/aggressiveness, fake humility, inflated sense of grandeur about my talents, disappearing when friendships got difficult, being overly pious about my deep spiritual understandings, just to name a few. But the need for all of those old habits slowly began to fade away (they certainly aren’t completely gone yet), and for a time, I felt raw and naked, like I had no defenses against the relentless hardships that are an inescapable part of life.
It takes time to learn a new genre of music, especially jazz, if you’ve been a heavy-metal head banger your whole life. And we all know how deeply rooted those old advertising songs are. I’m still hoping that someday I’ll completely forget the Oscar Mayer Wiener song. But alas, I started humming it just now.
I can see clearly now (yes, I’m humming that song now) that the call to thinking was my call to adventure, which I vehemently denied at first by trying to cheat my way past it by sounding wise and thoughtful, because thinking is hard. It came about during a month long spiritual retreat I attended in 2003 where we studied the nature of thinking, “living thinking” they called it.
From then on, the slow “raw and naked” process of change went on for about seven years, during which I began to appreciate living a minimal lifestyle. I found a little old logging house to rent near downtown Flagstaff AZ for $380 a month. At the time I had been reading Walden again, for the god knows how manyth time, so I called my new house the “Thoreau shack.” I loved Thoreau for his ever fresh insights into the spiritual in nature, and the integral nature in us all. I told some friends that my new house was three times the size of the cabin Thoreau built next to Walden Pond. Then I measured it and learned that it was actually four times as big. I know now that this was a micro example of kindling “science with the fires of the holiest of affections.”
I look back fondly now on those years I spent in the Thoreau shack, working as a carpenter only enough to pay the basics of food, rent, utilities, and coffee shops — where I would go to write almost every day.
In 2010, even though I had found a nice little place to live, I was still deeply depressed. A couple years earlier the economy crashed and we lost all the equity in our house. Not long after my twelve-year marriage came to an end. My faith in the American Dream was dead. I’d been to that holy land only to find that material comfort wasn’t a guarantee and couldn’t satisfy a yearning for “the holiest of affections.”
But I also found myself driven by some new and unfamiliar impulses that had begun to replace the old ones. The old habits of mind that I had on auto-pilot to keep me safe from any kind of harm were slowly withering away, which is a lot like losing an old friend. I finally crossed the threshold when I went back to college in my late forties, intent on becoming a writer.
And so, eight years later, after some time in the belly of the whale, learning to the best of my old brain’s ability about the craft, or the “science” of good writing–with a lot of help from my friends–and delving into the “holiest of affections” when I hit the zone every now and then… here I am, writing about the dance of religion and nihilism, Goebbels and Hitler, God and science, and slowly learning how to become a faithful thinker. And you know what? I think Emerson was right. It almost feels like God has come forth anew into this creation.
So there it is, my solution to our current radical political divide in a nutshell. My advice is that nobody listen to my advice. I think your own advice is much better. It’s never absent, always ready and waiting. It might need a little fine tuning though. What do you think?
#religionandpolitics #emerson #whatisthinking #thinking #faith #faithfulthinker